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Ray, a Drop of Golden Sun


Published January 7, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

I was driving a customer to the Trapp Family Lodge, one beauty of a fare in the heart of the ski season. It was late afternoon, and after three straight days of skies evocative of a gray overcoat, the sun had splashed through like clear water through a broken dam.

As I turned off the highway at the Stowe exit, the Hunger Mountain range was bathed in lemony light. For the past half hour, since we'd left the airport, my customer had been on the phone with his home office in Manhattan. The conversation had something to do with The Sound of Music and a new project involving the von Trapp family members, many of whom still reside in Vermont. The man was bald, well dressed and well groomed — some might say to the point of fastidiousness, but it was working for him. His voice was calm and brimming with enthusiasm for the work being discussed.

Me, I was feeling voluble. I hoped he would be, too, when he completed the call. I wanted to know the guy's story.

Having waited a respectable 20 seconds after his call ended, I got the ball rolling with "So, you're producing some sort of DVD?"

"Yeah, that's part of my business," he replied. "I work for the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization, the company formed by the heirs of the songwriting team to manage the performance rights for their music and plays. A few years ago, we produced a 40th-anniversary DVD for The Sound of Music, which included interviews with the von Trapp children who were still alive."

"Wow," I said, "that sounds really great. I'm a big musical-comedy guy myself. My favorite from that era was Flower Drum Song. You really don't hear about that one too much anymore. I guess it's now considered politically incorrect. I don't see why, though. I always thought it was a sweet tribute to the Chinese immigrant culture. Then again, maybe I'd feel different if I were Asian."

Nodding his head, my customer said, "Did you know the play was revived on Broadway in ... let me see, I think it was 2002? The libretto — what we call the 'book' — was reimagined by David Hwang, a Chinese American playwright, updating the story to reflect, well, a more modern sensibility. The reviews were mixed, at best, but David's intentions, I thought, were honorable. I remember a quote from him, something like 'I tried to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian American.' I really think Oscar would have approved, and that's why we gave it the go-ahead."

"Yeah, I think I heard about that," I said. "At least they kept the song-and-dance numbers. Man, were they great."

My customer chuckled, saying, "You won't get any argument from me on that. Did you know we also released a special edition of the movie version of Flower Drum Song, including commentary by Nancy Kwan?"

"Oh, my God — how sexy was she in that movie? She certainly stirred my adolescent heart the times I saw it on TV."

In my mind's eye, I visualized Nancy Kwan's solo number, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," during which she dances around wearing only a short white towel. "I guess she stirred more than my heart," I confessed.

For the remainder of the ride, we talked musicals, from Oklahoma! to Rent. I felt transported back to my childhood, when I used to lie on the living room floor listening to my parents' cast albums and dreaming about the stories the songs were telling.

Heading north on Route 100, I turned onto Moscow Road, a shortcut to our destination. I thought about how, back in the '90s, I had a regular customer who would fly up to visit the Trapp Family Lodge a few times a year, summer and winter. My cabbing career has been replete with piquant personalities, yet I would call Trevor a singular character. A diminutive elf of a man, he looked, spoke and carried himself like the late Truman Capote. And the von Trapp family saga was his lifelong fascination, if not obsession.

When he was a child, Trevor shared with me, he and his mother would take regular road trips from their Rhode Island home to vacation at the lodge. On these visits, he often interacted with Maria, the grand matriarch herself. Trevor continued this vacation tradition into his adulthood, except he never learned how to drive; hence his use of my service.

During what turned out to be the last time I drove him, Trevor asked if I'd like to see "something special" inside the main building. I followed him up to the second floor, where the von Trapps had hung family memorabilia along the wide hallways. Leading me into an alcove, Trevor pointed out one specific item, which appeared to be a publicity photo. It was a shot of the great stage star Mary Martin, decked out as Maria von Trapp in the original stage production of The Sound of Music.

"Just look at the inscription," he said, his quiet tone almost reverential.

It read, "To my dearest Maria, The joy of my life has been playing you, knowing you, and Loving you, [signed] Mary Martin." The words "Loving you" were twice the size of the others. I looked over at Trevor to see tears sliding down his cheeks.

Emerging from that vivid, 25-year-old memory, I arrived at the lodge with my new customer. He paid the fare, and we exchanged business cards and shook hands. We had bonded over our shared love of this uniquely American art form.

Exactly one week later, a puffy manila envelope showed up in my mailbox. When I saw the return address, I had my suspicions. When I tore it open, my guess was confirmed: It was the special-edition DVD of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song — a unique and treasured tip, after the fact, from a thoughtful and generous taxi customer.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.


Hackie is a twice-monthly column